What Lessons can we Learn from Herodotus in our Daily Lives?

Answer by Joel Schlosser

On a summer evening at Point Reyes, California, a fellow wedding guest asked me what I did in the Bay Area. After a sip of my margarita, I replied that I was a graduate student studying ancient Greek at Berkeley – reading Herodotus, in fact. His face lit up. Herodotus!? He exclaimed. I love him. I’ll never forget one story in particular, he continued. Rhampsinitus, I think his name was, and the thief. I nodded. He retold this delightful story, which hinges on the thief’s father, who designs a treasury for King Rhampsinitus with a secret entrance. On his deathbed, he tells his sons about this secret and they plot and succeed – with twists both humorous and tragic – in robbing the king. I’m an architect, my interlocutor told me. Herodotus understood one of the great delights of my profession – those secret yet visible details unknown to everybody but you.

This story came to mind when I read and pondered the question of what lessons we can learn from Herodotus in our daily lives because it illustrates how there’s something in Herodotus for almost everyone. This architect found resonance in Herodotus’ attention to design and building. A doctor might have recounted Herodotus’ appreciation of Babylonian medical practices. An ecologist could marvel at his sensitivity toward different environments and their inhabitants. There’s something in Herodotus for everyone at the level of what Americans call “relatability,” lessons teach attention and appreciation toward the ten thousand details of daily life.

But alongside Herodotus’ wide-angle and wide-ranging lens also comes a set of ethical and political insights. To take one example, Herodotus illustrates the dangers of self-certainty, of believing that you completely understand a situation. Stories like that of Croesus, whose overly confident misinterpretation of an oracle leads to his demise, instruct readers about humility, carefulness, and the need to reflect on their assumptions and judgments. Solon’s famous advice to Croesus to count no man happy until he is dead underscores the lesson that life is not just unpredictable but complex beyond comprehension. Those in positions of power are especially prone to err because the pressures both of reputation and of leadership hasten ill-considered judgments. (As I have argued in the Research Bulletin of the Center for Hellenic Studies, Herodotus seems to favor democratic institutions that allow for equal participation of affected parties in decision making.)

Herodotus’ lessons come with yet one more level of complexity. The journalist Robert Kaplan published a wonderful essay in The Atlantic a decade ago that praised Herodotus as “a historian for our time” because of his appreciation of the complexities of culture and politics. Herodotus’ lessons emerge from specific places and times that must chasten our desire to generalize. Much like Plato’s dialogues, Herodotus does not speak directly but through illustrative stories, oracles, and historical figures whom he richly characterizes but remain at a distance from the author himself. Unlike Thucydides, Herodotus does not pretend to offer a “possession for all time” in his history. Instead, he presents his work as a demonstration of his inquiry.

Inquiry, then, may be the most important lesson of Herodotus. (Historia in Greek means inquiry.) This lesson applies both to how to inquire as well as what to inquire about. To inquire well, you must learn to look for yourself, in person if at all possible; to question the received wisdom; to ask those who know and then confirm with others. Yet inquiry is not just a method but an orientation toward the world, and Herodotus’ curiosity about not just human but nonhuman – plant, animal, terrestrial, and divine – phenomena illustrates where inquiry must be directed. If you confine yourself to one domain or discipline, you’ll fail to comprehend the complex interdependence of things – which could lead to your downfall. What’s more, if you restrict your inquiry to what you consider important or knowable, you’re much less likely to discover the delights and wonders around you. Who knows – there may be treasure awaiting just behind that otherwise ordinary looking stone.

For further reading, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus gives a delightful example of bringing Herodotus into daily life. I explore Herodotus’s lessons for the 21st century in Herodotus in the Anthropocene. And on the richness of Herodotus’s stories, I find Walter Benjamin’s reflections in “The Storyteller” (collected in his book of essays Illuminations but available around the internet) endlessly fruitful.